Just the Facts
stoneware, some porcelain
Primary Forming Method
wheel throwing, also coiling
Primary Firing Temperature
cone 10-11 gas reduction
Favorite Surface Treatment
slips and wood-ash glazes, also wax resist and layered glazes
a trimming tool I made from an iron strap over 30 years ago
Tales of a Red Clay Rambler, On Point, Fresh Air, and a mix of classical, blues, and pop music
My pottery is located in an old, cream-colored brick building that housed horses and carts for a butter, egg, and cheese business established in the 1880s. Sue Messer and I bought the building in 1999 to convert it to studios; we removed and added walls, rebuilt a stairway, removed an old garage door, installed three large doors with windows for the entrance, added trusses to the roof, and added a paved parking lot. Sue’s studio is upstairs where she creates mixed media drawings and handmade books. I have 1600 square feet of space on the first floor, divided roughly into four areas: display, clay work, glazing, and a room for my electric kiln and clay mixer. My gas kiln is in a shed adjacent to the building and I store dry materials in a warehouse on the property. The best things about this studio are the historic character of the building, the generous space, and its location; half-way between Madison and Milwaukee and two hours from Chicago.
Paying Dues (and Bills)
My first exposure to pottery was during my senior year at Knox College, when a ceramics program was added, headed up by Dennis Parks. I was already concentrating in painting and art history and looking toward graduate school studying art history. This new medium drew my attention though, and I spent time outside my other courses learning the fundamentals of wheel throwing and helping to build and fire the salt kiln.
After Knox College, I earned an MA at the University of Iowa in art history, concentrating in Medieval architecture and sculpture, and then taught art history, humanities, and design at Dickinson State University in western North Dakota. It just so happened that my office was next door to the ceramics area; I could not resist spending time in that studio, so much so that I was asked to teach the classes. It gave me a chance to spend even more time, learn a great deal, and become hooked on making pots.
In 1973, I returned to Knox College to work in the admissions office and this is when my serious interest in pottery began. I spent all my spare time making pots and spent any extra money on equipment. I was fortunate to have the mentorship of Henry Joe, the new ceramics professor at Knox, who helped me with the technical aspects of pottery making and introduced me to the work and philosophy of Bernard Leach and Shoji Hamada.
In 1977 I resigned a secure position to set up a ceramics studio at the local community college and teach part time. The next several years were a mix of part-time teaching at two local colleges, making pots in the basement, firing in an oil-burning kiln in the garage, and selling at a few art fairs.
In 1981, I co-founded a pottery studio and shop in Bishop Hill, Illinois. In 1986, I left to pursue an MFA from the University of Notre Dame with Bill Kremer. After that, two years in a production pottery honed my skills and acquainted me with early American pottery shapes. In 1990, I received an Individual Artist Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts that helped me buy equipment and was great validation for my work. From 1991–2001 I taught ceramics and sculpture at Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, before moving to Wisconsin and establishing my current studio in Johnson Creek.
While I have participated in art and craft shows, I have recently cut back, and instead have put more energy into making additional work for two local tours that enable me to sell from my own shop. My biggest event is the Earth, Wood, and Fire Artist Tour in late October. Six years ago, eight other local potters and I initiated the Clay Collective Pottery Tour, a spring event that last year included seventeen invited potters.
In addition to selling work from my studio throughout the year, I also sell work through Artisan Gallery, James May Gallery, Racine Art Museum, and Gilded Pear Gallery. From 2005 to 2009 I tried wholesaling and found it to be an efficient way to make sales and introduce my work to a larger audience, but this market was declining even before the economic crisis. I have also set up an online store on my website.
Research and Inspiration
The landscape around me, both natural and man-made, is an important source of inspiration. I spend a lot of time driving or riding through the countryside, continually scanning shapes, surfaces, patterns, and colors, particularly aware of rural architecture as well as the shapes and patterns of human alterations—fence rows, canals, plowing, planting, and harvesting—all suggesting marks that could find their way into a clay shape or surface.
Pots, especially those in museums, are another source. Recent examples that have been important to me are: “For Hearth and Altar,” an exhibition of African pottery at the Art Institute of Chicago and the collection of Chinese Neolithic painted pottery in the Gansu Provincial Museum in Lanzhou, China. Standing next to actual pots allows your body to feel the scale and texture, and to view them from different angles and distances. Pots activate the space around them and assert a presence, an aspect that photographs cannot convey.
Perhaps the most inspirational of all is the act of making, translating ideas into material. For me, the wheel is like a musical instrument, and the nuances of the throwing rhythms and marks and how they relate to three-dimensional form are limitless. I like nothing more than making a series of pots, similar in size and shape, free to intuitively create the final profile, surface, or edges.
Most Important Lesson
I have found that developing something new, whether aesthetic or technical, can often be a frustrating and even discouraging process. After having gone through this process many times over the years, I have learned to treat it with patience and curiosity and discovered that the problem solving is satisfying in itself, and often leads to unexpected and welcome results that I could never have foreseen.